Samui Wining & Dining
Going Native

Joining the locals at Uncle Jai’s


16The northeast of Thailand is its poorest region, but its cuisine is the most ubiquitous. Its friendly and capable people, the Issan, are to be found all over the country, traditionally in manual work, but increasingly in every sector. Wherever they are, they nurture a deep nostalgia for their rural roots and their yummy cuisine.

      Fortunately for us, this means one can find Issan food everywhere, most usually in a casual, relaxed setting. Follow the ‘pok pok’ sounds made by a wooden mortar and pestle and you will find at its source a broad, friendly face patiently preparing that most popular salad called som tam for an equally patient queue.

      Literally meaning ‘sour-pounded’, som tam is made by smashing a variety of fresh ingredients including small tomatoes, dried shrimp, garlic, lime, chilli, sugar, fish sauce and peanuts with strips of raw grated green papaya in a mortar and pestle.

      The action of the pestle ensures that the flavours are blended well and then lightly crushed against the papaya without pulverising it, yielding a crisp tangy sour, spicy, nutty, sharp and sweet flavour that tantalizes the palate

      The vendor makes each salad to order, clients calling out their preferences and their favourite ingredients, while the vendor ‘pok poks’ and then empties the contents of the mortar into a plastic bag with an elastic band for take-away, or onto a serving plate before starting with the next order.

       The most important decision you need to make is how many chillies you want to spice up your salad. And you need to make this decisive choice early in the process as the chilli factor is determined at the onset of the pounding. The range is generally one to ten tiny chillies, but if you are really heat-shy, you could start with none, as the residual chilli flavour in the pestle may be enough of a homeopathic dose for you.

      Variations to the salad abound, and the above mixture is generally called som tam Thai. You can replace the shrimp and peanuts with salted black crab (som tam pu), or for a truly authentic Issan version, with fermented fish (som tam pla ra). Or both. Alternatives include salted egg, with rice noodles or sand crabs. All these salads need to be eaten shortly after being pounded as any substantial delay will render the vegetables limp and soggy.

       Som tam is easily the most popular snack in Thailand, and is eagerly wolfed down as breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between by millions in all walks of life every working day. On holidays too, a classic pastime such as a group outing to a waterfall can only be counted as successful if there’s an opportunity to eat som tam with barbequed chicken (som tam gai yang).

         And as luck has it, Lung Jai’s (or Uncle Jai’s) is the closest restaurant to Samui’s famous waterfall at Namuang. The correct road is the most westerly entrance (closer to Nathon) of the two waterfall roads. Don’t take the Namuang 2 waterfall entrance off the main ring road, as while this may bring you to the Safari Park, it is nowhere near the delicious array of Issan delights of Uncle Jai’s simple establishment.

         The path to the restaurant from the car park is lined with vendors selling local fruit and knick-knacks. For 20 years, this little no-name shack has been ready and able to feed the pilgrims visiting the waterfall, and needing a pick-me-up. Lung Jai and his cook Khun Nid are relaxed and friendly, bringing out the food dish by dish. Within earshot of the strident forest cicadas and soothing cool streams leading from the falls, you can plonk down on the simple cement garden furniture, arranged in the shade of tall forest trees where it is delightfully cool. Hungry, you order straight from the laminated menu. We asked for som tam Thai with one chilli, and som tam pla ra (the real McCoy) with six. And rice.

         Sticky rice. This glutinous strain is first soaked and then steamed in a woven basket. And guess what? It’s a perfect accompaniment to som tam, best eaten with your hands by moulding a ball of the sticky rice to pinch at some salad and mopping up the juices.

         Issan food is famously spicy but each dish can be modulated by the chilli factor. Another apparently essential ingredient is MSG, and my fear on asking for it to be omitted is that the cook will often increase the sugar content to compensate, and so spoil the salad. Here however, the spicing is perfect, both for the moderate one chilli salad and for the mega-dose with six for my Thai companion.

         We also order roast chicken and namtok mu, a dish comprising of sliced grilled pork neck, chilli, lemon, fish sauce, spring onion, coriander and crispy rice. Traditionally in poor Issan, protein comprises a small part of the meal, with the people famously eating a wide variety of creatures you may not consider palatable, including insects, frogs, and reptiles. Often these will be presented as larb, a perennial favourite which is similar to namtok but generally more finely minced and served with mint.

         As a salty and sour complement to the grilled flavours of the barbeque, we enjoy a spicy sauce called nam chim cheo, which comprises chilli paste, fish sauce, lime, coriander and crispy rice. An accompanying plate of unadorned raw vegetables including green beans, basil and cabbage is a crunchy and refreshing contrast to the spicy meal.

         While the casual character of the food stands here may seem disorganised, the food is clean and tasty, and in all the years I’ve eaten from Issan vendors stands, I’ve never had any discomfort. The fare is honest, simple and basic, a delicious blend of fresh vegetables, solid carbs and a little protein, and perfect for a picnic outing.


Annie Lee


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